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Could ‘freier culture’ be behind Israel’s pandemic figures?

If Israeli society stops festishizing aggression and military might, and sets aside its norms of never apologizing and never being a sucker, we might just beat Covid after all

Browsing through my Facebook feed recently, I came across an interesting parody of a Ministry of Health poster. It was created by Ittay Flesher, a Jerusalem-based journalist and fellow Times of Israel blogger.

It bore the title “פראייר בעד ארצנו” along with the subtitle “אפילו אם אחרים לא, אני שמור הל ההנחיות”.

Translation into English:

“A freier (sucker) in favor of our country. Even if others do not, I obey the guidelines.”

The graphic — which is currently doing the rounds on Facebook groups — followed on from a couple of interesting pieces of commentary in the media recently.

Writing in Ha’aretz, Anshel Pfeffer was among the first to bravely question whether Israel’s appalling coronavirus numbers could be attributable, at least in part, to the national obsession with not being a freier (sucker).

Pfeffer contends that:

“This year, the non-freier has evolved. Avoiding freierdom is no longer an individual pursuit, the man against the system. Under COVID-19, we now have entire sectors of the Israeli population determined not to be freierim.

I’ve written before — on this blog and elsewhere — about the far-reaching influence of freier culture in Israeli culture. It’s a culture which I like to remind myself is in its first one hundred years of evolution. By comparison to world civilizations, it could fairly be described as being in its formative stages.

Writing in Ynet a few days ago “(Israelis must show some national responsibility”), Sharon Kidon points to the lack of cohesiveness in Israeli society — what I would call a “me-first” culture — as driving Israel’s dismal demise from being a global model for handling the coronavirus to becoming the country with the highest per-capita infection rate in the world.

Like Pfeffer, Kidon doesn’t spare the Balfour Street anti-Netanyahu protesters from excoriation, asserting that Israel is a nation of tribes and “each tribe cares little for the rest.”

Who’s The Real Sucker Here?

Israel’s unique driving culture could be seen as a reflection of its social norms

My opinion — for those who follow this blog — is that Kidon and Pfeffer are merely looking at different sides of the same coin.

For months, I have privately held the belief that freier culture is what is driving Israel’s failure to rein in its sky-high infection numbers.

Here’s why.

The Haredim, as has been covered, have been holding large weddings in violation of government orders. But the largely secular middle class has been congregating on beaches and around Balfour Street too — the latter even going so far as to hold a celebratory meal in a show of flagrant disregard for social distancing.

The commonality between the two?

Both groups know that they can get away with disobeying official recommendations. Obeying almost unenforceable government directives would be a freier move. And what could be a worse badge of shame to bear than that?!

As bad as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s frequent complaints that the Israeli public refuse to follow his government’s directives may look from the outside, I believe he has a point.

Because just as freier culture disregards social norms, laws, and what should be done in favor of what can be achieved to advance one’s interests, it disregards the interests and the wellbeing of anybody other than the freier-avoiders themselves.

Freierism is, effectively, the ultimate selfish mentality. A mode of behavior which implies that there is no normative reason to follow the will of the collective (the law) or the other in lieu of the pursuit of one’s own exigencies. In the freier mentality, the effect on the other matters nought. If or we can get away with something that’s enough justification to engage in a behavior.

When anti-freier culture is elevated to the level of being a cherished national characteristic, and in instances in which enforcement of laws and regulations is rendered almost impossible — such as at the present — mass civil disobedience is its inevitable consequence.

Time To Make Freyerism A Cultural Relic?

As I wrote in this blog previously (“Could Israelis Be The Ultimate Freyers?”) nobody seems sure about where the Israeli aversion to suckerdom originates from.

Perhaps it stems from the gritty nature of life in the Israeli military — which a nation of conscripts is necessarily exposed to?

You might argue — depending on your political inclination — that the callous kind of behavior that enforcing a military occupation requires creates a mass belief that pushing ahead and being aggressive is the way to get forward in life, regardless of how much misery that inflicts on the other party.

Whatever its cause, freier culture (and its partner in crime, shitat mazliach — “the successful method” — getting away with what you can) seem to be exerting powerful and detrimental effects upon Israel’s ability to face down the virus.

And if you agree with me in attributing Israel’s epidemiology in part to this cultural attribute, then I argue you must agree that freier culture is not the innocuous and somewhat comical force that many observers of Israeli culture — both internal and external — believe it to be.

I believe that the national obsession with not being a freier is a force for massive harm. And that we are witnessing its bitter fruits in Israel’s failure to deal with the coronavirus.

This is because the deeply entrenched Israeli belief that to be a freier is a terrible thing ends up equating civility, good behavior, and following laws with being a sucker. The corollary becomes that bad behavior, disregard for the needs of others, and open defiance of the law are accepted and sometimes celebrated traits.

Letting somebody buying a can of tuna go ahead of you at the supermarket when you’re shopping for a family of ten?

Nice American manners, perhaps. But doing so would also be the quintessential frier move.

So would yielding in traffic to let somebody go ahead of you. Be strong and cut them off before you do!

Saying “bevakasha”  (please) and “toda” (thank you) before and after ordering a coffee? Manners are great in the US and all, but do you really want the person behind the till to think that you’re a pushover before you’ve even received your latté?

Those examples suffice.

For more than 70 years, the Jewish state has withstood almost constant attempts to annihilate and harm it from actors both within Israel and outside of it.

But maybe it’s time that we thought about dispensing with some cultural defensive mechanisms — and began asking whether aspects of Israel’s formative culture are part of the collateral damage of those wars.

If Israel is to move from being a nation of infighting tribes to a united country, citizens, including you and I, need to start understanding the importance of the collective.

This means caring for the other — whether that’s a person or a tribe. Following the laws that the country has set to stop the spread of the pandemic would be a good starting point. And what could possibly provide a better warning against the pitfalls of ignoring unity and cohesiveness than the current public health situation?

Israeli society has come to festishize strength, aggression, and military might. Cultural norms that have flowed from this include never being wrong, never apologizing, and never — never! — being a sucker. None of these, I believe, are good absolute values to hold.

I’ll let you in on a secret.

There’s a very good chance that you won’t be ticketed if you choose to spend the rest of the hagim with you family in the North.

Or invite them all over to yours for a grand big meal.

Even with the help of electronic surveillance, it’s simply impossible for a police force of 30,000 to keep close tabs on the day to day movements of a population of millions.

But just because it’s possible doesn’t make it right. Preserving public health is more important than you seeing your relatives.

Even if we’re called freiers for doing so, let’s do our part to stop the spread and follow the Ministry of Health guidelines.

Together, let’s change freier culture.

About the Author
Daniel Rosehill is a professional writer based in Jerusalem specializing in ghostwriting long-form thought leadership content for technology executives and public sector clients.
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